Mailbag: Did Hideki Matsuyama just join golf’s young elite?
As Super Bowl 50 was getting ready to roll, with the new face of the NFL hoping to overtake the face of the NFL since the late ‘90s, two young stars — one already established and one desperately trying to add his name to a short list of the Global Golf Movement — were battling it out in Scottsdale, Ariz.
A lot of people turned away from their televisions as you’d expect — because no matter if 600,000 or so people come out for a week of non-major golf, when football is on, football is still king — but the real drama of Sunday went down at the Waste Management Open.
At this point you know what happened: Hideki Matsuyama, the 23-year-old Japanese stud with a golf swing so buttery it would overpower a lobster roll, actually leaned on the one club in his bag that he battles with the most, draining a ridiculous birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force Rickie Fowler, The Current Man of the Hour in golf, to do the same. He did, thanks to a little tickle left a la Bob May, and the two went on to a playoff where it was Matsuyama who wouldn’t be denied.
As news cycles go, the main story was Fowler (of course), and how he ended up losing this event with a two-shot lead with two holes to play, and what happened post-playoff, with Fowler breaking down after admitting he had family members attending who had never seen him win before. It was tough to hear and to watch from the most comfortable guy in the moment we’ve seen since Retief Goosen. Fowler emits that calm under pressure that brings to mind Joe Montana pointing out John Candy in the stands during one of the most important drives of his life. To see him become that real after the loss showed just how tough it really is to win any event in pro golf these days, major championship or otherwise.
The real winner of the week was Matsuyama, who is an early candidate for momentum victory of the season. Beating someone as red-hot as Fowler in a lengthy playoff can do wonders for confidence, and that might have been the one thing lacking from Hideki as he tries to take the leap from incredible talent to top five in the world. Rory McIlroy’s momentum victory came at Congressional in historic fashion after collapsing at the Masters just months before. Jordan Spieth got his at the 2014 Australian Open. Rickie Fowler’s was at the Players in ’15. All the young guys have that one win that proved to them, not just us, that they can battle the biggest in the game, and this past weekend might just be the one for Hideki.
He’s right there, and if he goes out and snags the Claret Jug at Royal Troon or the Wanamaker at Baltusrol, it’ll be the five holes against Fowler, including that closing birdie in regulation. That will be remembered as the moment that Matsuyama lived up to the hype and added another young 20-something to this growing list of G.S.W.N.S. (golf superstars who needn’t shave).
@shanebacon Thoughts on Rickie's emotional reaction to the loss and what it tells us about his character and his relationship with the game?
— Andrew C. Sottile (@acsottile) February 8, 2016
Bacon: There was a moment on Sunday when Fowler was arriving at the 16th where NBC focused a lot of its attention on his grandfather, Yutaka Tanaka, whom Fowler mentioned after the playoff had never seen him win before.
Fowler did the Tour Saucy thing he’d been doing all Sunday after a good swing — which was basically to look away (a little Jack Nicklaus on 16 in ’86 to it) after he watched it leave his club face, much as he did with his second shot on 15 that led to a two-putt birdie. And on a day when the 16th was playing the toughest it had all week, it was again a perfect strike to the perfect spot (right of the hole, pin-high, no fear of missing it in Bogeyville left of the green).
The cameras caught Fowler giving his grandpa (or someone in that vicinity) a small smirk, a look of comfort, not confidence, and one that said, “I got this,” and frankly, after that swing, I think we all thought that same thing. Fowler is playing the best golf of anyone in the world right now, and after that swing on 16 it looked like he would snag a second win in three weeks with ease.
So it makes sense to see him lose it emotionally after the roller-coaster finish that followed. When you’re standing on a hole like 17 with a two-shot lead, all you have to do is avoid anything left and it’s game over. That hole was built for the bullet drive that Fowler has now made his go-to shot, and as long as he doesn’t double-cross it off the tee, it’s trophies and champagne and another W.
But that didn’t happen. Fowler hit it over the green, and the moment that ball splashed a million critics erupted in unison about his decision-making off the tee.
Here is where I go on my mini-rant about Fowler and defending his decision to hit driver in that spot.
To carry the pot bunker in the fairway on the 17th, you have to hit it 279 yards in the air. That’s a bit of a poke for Fowler’s three-wood, but considering the way the ball was carrying over the weekend in Scottsdale, it was manageable. The problem with pulling fairway wood there is it’s really, really hard to get something on the putting surface because of the flat area in front of the green. You see the big slope that comes off the back of that pot bunker, but it flattens out short of the green, and balls that were landing there were just stopping like they were hit with a wedge.
Fowler and his caddie, Joe Skovron, decided on driver with a two-shot lead because they thought, much like everybody else who had been watching Fowler play all week, that a bad swing there is going right, not left. Right on 17 is a totally fine spot, especially with where the hole location was on Sunday.
So the decision was the right one. People can say that he shouldn’t have hit driver and he should have laid up (the lay up on that hole is almost as tough as trying to find the putting surface, mind you), but nobody on the planet thought Fowler was going to hit a bunt-driver 360 yards. Nobody. Fowler got a bad kick off that bad bunker, it shot over the green like it had been fired from a cannon, and it ended up costing him the tournament.
Like I said on Sunday, you can’t fault a guy for pulling off the exact shot he was trying to pull off at the exact moment he needed it like Fowler did with that tee shot on 17. He just got a bad break. That stuff happens. Guys hit tee shots in divots, guys get plugged lies in bunkers, and sometimes guys hit shots so good they catapult off the back of bunkers and into a hazard that they didn’t think came into play.
That’s golf, and on Sunday Fowler found out that not all the breaks go his way.
— Cameron Cox (@CamCox12) February 8, 2016
His emotional interview after the round was a mix of a lot of things, with his family, and grandpa, being in the stands to watch him win, and a little of all of the last three weeks coming together in one 28-word question.
He just lost it for a minute. As bad as I felt for Fowler, I thought it showed us a side of him we never get to see, especially when he’s between the ropes trying to bring home a victory. He showed vulnerability and humility, and he broke down as a lot of athletes do when they come up a bit short.
Fowler will be fine. When the most disappointed you can be is finishing second in a playoff to the No. 12-ranked golfer in the world, you know you’re doing something right.
@shanebacon is there any legitimacy to 'peaking too early' in the PGA season? Ie. Will rickie have anything in the tank when majors begin
— Colton Davis (@Colton45) February 8, 2016
Bacon: The one thing every golfer knows is that when your game is red hot, you keep plugging away, keep teeing it up and try to play as much as possible — because the line between playing the best golf of your life and completely losing it can be crossed in one swing.
Fowler will be fine. If the schedule gets too busy and he burns out, he will take some time off and skip out on a few events in May/early June.
As I mentioned in my 2016 preview piece, this is a unique season, with three majors being played in a 45-day span. Fowler and others have the Masters circled, he has a defense at the Players as a big part of his year, and then it’s prep time for that insane run that goes down before the Olympics, which Fowler will most likely be playing in as well.
Fowler is playing some great golf right now. I’m sure instead of thinking about being tired, he’s thinking about the next event and how many hours he has until he gets to peg it and go.
Even Fowler said it as he was breaking down during his post-round interview on Sunday:
“I’ll be all right. With how good I’m playing, I know I can win. That’s the hard part.”
@shanebacon is there a better 3 course span on the schedule than Torrey Pines, TPC Scottsdale and Pebble?
— Jacob Bell (@jbell13) February 8, 2016
Bacon: That one is tough to beat, but later this year the Tour goes Bethpage Black, TPC Boston and Crooked Stick in a row, which ain’t all bad. (East Lake follows the Stick, not to mention Hazeltine hosting the Ryder Cup after the Tour Championship, so that’s not a bad run if you’re trying to add a few checkmarks to your top-100 board.)
@shanebacon What are your Top 5 worst golf fashion looks and where will high tops and jogger pants ultimately rank amongst this group?
— Brandon Feldt (@TheRealBFeldt) February 8, 2016
1.) The white belt becoming the laziest golf fashion choice in the history of the game
2.) The mock turtleneck T-shirt thingy
4.) How everything has to match perfectly (blue shoes, blue belt, blue hat, blue logo)
5.) That time everyone wore shirts that were so baggy you could use them as backup sails in the America’s Cup.
@shanebacon Has Matsuyama been under/over or rightly praised over the first 3-4 years of his world golf relevance?
— Troy Klongerbo Golf (@troy_usgolftv) February 8, 2016
Bacon: Matsuyama is 23 years old, has eight worldwide wins, including two PGA Tour victories (both in playoffs), and finally had a solid major season last year with three top 20s that included a fifth-place finish at Augusta National.
A lot of us have been touting Matsuyama for a long, long time, and the reason might not just be how beautiful his golf swing is but how consistent he has been without people really talking about it.
Look at some of the biggest names in golf right now, and where Matsuyama stakes up against them in terms of how often they finish in the top 25 on the PGA Tour.
It’s impressive he’s been able to finish that high that often on Tour, a true testament to how well he plays even in his off-weeks. (Tiger Woods, of course, was the G.O.A.T. of this stat, finishing in the top 25 76.1 percent of the time over the course of his PGA Tour career.)
Matsuyama is right there with the big boys. He now has two impressive wins, one at an elite-level PGA Tour event and another over the hottest player in Fowler, and he did it by making clutch putts to not only get into a playoff but to hang there until Fowler made the first big mistake.
After looking at some of the numbers, I think we haven’t given Hideki the proper amount of love considering what he’s done so far in his blossoming career.
Bacon: People have been trying to copy greatness for centuries, and most of the time, it fails miserably.
— Stephan (@StephanKoblos) February 8, 2016
The issue with trying to recreate what the Waste Management does is you have to:
A.) Find a venue that has amazing weather nine out of the 12 months and falls during a time when most of the rest of the country has back issues from shoveling snow. This means people are buying tickets and taking a trip to the desert to get away from the cold and get in a little golf.
B.) Have a group like the Thunderbirds that is willing to put hundreds and hundreds of hours into a golf tournament, never being scared of changes or tweaks (look at the Bay Club this year on 17 … an absolute hit from the start and a nice break for those who are a bit over the craziness of the 16th but still want a comfortable place to watch some golf and knock back a few drinks with a great view).
C.) Fall perfectly in the schedule so at least some of the big names on Tour will visit. It wouldn’t be the same without Phil, Rickie, and for better or worse, Bubba Watson stirring the pot with his comments about the course.
D.) Find a golf course that has a finish as exciting as the one at TPC Scottsdale and presents it as such. I loved that the hole location on Sunday was front-left instead of in that back peninsula on the 17th as it has been in the past. I thought it gave golfers a chance to make an eagle or a bogey, depending on how much they wanted to chance it, but took out the guessing game of a two-putt or a pitch to that scary spot on the 71st hole of a tournament.
E.) Be in a location that is fun, entertaining and capable of hosting hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors at a sprawled-out location like Phoenix/Scottsdale.
I’m sure some places would love to get even a fifth of the attendance the Waste Management gets, but it would have to be the perfect storm of all those factors, and that’s a hard thing to pull off.
Bacon: I get that playoffs go back to the 18th hole. I asked the Senior Director of Communications at the PGA Tour, Joel Schuchmann, how they go about picking playoff holes at each event, and here is what he had to say:
@shanebacon IMO the playoff should have gone: 16,17,18. What is the best type of hole for a playoff: risk/reward or tough?
— Carrforthecourse (@Carr4thecourse) February 8, 2016
"Basically it’s a combination of things, namely trying to find the best hole on the golf course for a one-hole playoff along with significant other factors — location of fans after completion of regulation (along with volunteers and security), operational TV towers and crew on the hole or holes (some are broken down once groups go through holes), available daylight, the window of the telecast we will be in and location of awards ceremony (you won’t lose as many fans if the playoff ends at 18). The decision for playoff holes is made prior to the start of the event and is a combination of Tour rules officials along with television, sponsor and host organization. I’m sure there are some other factors, but these are the primary concerns. Year-to-year, you’ll see some changes made to best accommodate the tournament and all constituents."
So yeah, all of that makes total sense for non-crazy PGA Tour tournaments.
That being said, I think at the Waste Management Open, you play the 18th one time and then move on. Normally the 18th hole at PGA Tour events is a testy par-4, which to me is the best test of all abilities, lengths and skills.
If you’re Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnson, you want it to be a par-5 because length immediately makes you the favorite. If you’re Boo Weekley or Russell Knox, you’d prefer it be a par-3 so you can toss a dart in there with your elite iron play and end that thing right there. A par-4 forces players to hit a tee shot, an iron shot and then make a putt, the complete package of what golf is about.
But at TPC Scottsdale and the Waste Management, the rules need to be changed. The 16th on Sunday was playing upwards of a 170 yards, meaning it wasn’t a gap wedge to a friendly hole location and an immediate applause from the crowd like earlier in the week.
That’s a tough test, and that should be the second playoff hole when the Phoenix Open goes to sudden death. After that, you go to 17, a risk-reward par-4 that ended up being the deciding factor last weekend and gives fans a great chance to see an eagle win it or a bogey lose it.
Then — and this would never happen because it wouldn’t work logistically but it would be awesome — they go back to the 15th and repeat the closing stretch.
So, for the Waste Management playoff, I would go:
18, 16, 17, 15, 16, 17, 18.
That, to me, gives everyone a fair shake, and brings in the most fun holes on one of the most fun closing stretches on Tour in play. Not going back to the 16th when you have the option seems like a seriously missed opportunity for the fans who make this event such a one-of-a-kind golf tournament every year.
Bacon: Can Phil Mickelson ever win again?! He has finished T-3 and T-11 (with about two dozen lip-outs) in two of his first three starts of 2016! And he’s Phil Mickelson! And last time I checked, the Masters is behind held at Augusta National again this year!
@shanebacon can Phil ever win again? If so, where do you see it at?
— Ashley Harrison (@ashdharrison) February 9, 2016
So let me ask Phil; hey Lefty, do you think you’ll win another event before you retire?
Shane Bacon is a regular contributor to FOXSports.com’s golf coverage. Follow him on Twitter at @shanebacon.